From the obvious to the less heralded, here are nine Midwestern destinations for your spring break escape…
Spring break. Though often identified with college kids, wild parties and antics of dubious distinction, the practice actually dates back to ancient Greece and the festival of Anthestreria, which took place every spring when flowers and plants began to bloom. Today, college students aren’t the only ones who need to leave behind their daily obligations from time to time. Amidst the frenzy of modern life, we all need to recharge our vital energies—we all need a spring break getaway!
And while the beach is always nice, if tropical destinations aren’t in the cards this year, you can still break free of the grind for a day… or a weekend. Here are some ideas—nine Midwestern destinations within several hours’ drive—where you can take refuge this spring.
The Heart of Amish Country
1 h 55 min (111.7 mi) via I-74
Photo Courtesy Arthur Area Tourism
Ready to take life more slowly… if just for a day? Get off the interstate and experience “The Heart of Illinois Amish Country” at the pace of a horse-drawn buggy. More than 1,000 Amish families live in the flat prairie lands surrounding Arthur, the largest and oldest Amish community in Illinois. Shunning modern technologies, its members run hundreds of unique businesses scattered across the countryside—furniture and machine shops, grocery and hardware stores, butchers and bakeries, roadside stands full of fresh produce and baked goods—and they’re always happy to serve visitors.
The best way to experience their renowned hospitality? Share a traditional meal inside one of their homes, easily arranged by ACM Tours. The downtown business district is full of unique shops and restaurants offering up cheese, fudge, handcrafted furniture, local art and photography, and much more. The recently opened Penn Station Theatre features live bluegrass and gospel music, while in nearby Sullivan, The Little Theatre on the Square has produced Broadway-quality theater since 1957. Finally, don’t miss the Homesteaders on the Prairie Antique Show, “the finest country antiques show in downstate Illinois,” held on the first weekend of March!
A Small-Town Retreat
Bishop Hill, Illinois
1 h (56.4 mi) via I-74
Photo Courtesy Bishop Hill Heritage Association
Just an hour northwest of Peoria, Bishop Hill has been likened to a town out of a fairy tale. It was founded in 1846 by Swedish immigrants who sought to create their own “Utopia on the Prairie,” and with a population of 128 (as of the 2010 census), it retains the charm of its original settlers. The entire village is a National Historic Landmark, looking very much the same today as it did 170 years ago.
With three restaurants, six museums, and more than a dozen art galleries and shops full of locally made crafts, there’s plenty to see and do—yet it’s small enough that you can easily walk everywhere. Not only can you watch artists at work, many offer hands-on workshops, so you can make your own pottery or learn quilting, rug making or other crafts. With special events and festivals year-round, the gazebo in the old town square is often encircled with straw bales and lawn chairs for a concert or historical reenactment.
Relax and spend the night at one of two historic inns—no chains here! The lovingly restored Twinflower Inn offers four suites, two extra guest rooms, and a (mostly) locally sourced breakfast every morning, while the Gallery Inn, located above a gallery overlooking the village park, prompted one TripAdvisor reviewer to call it “one of the best-kept secrets in Illinois.” Whether you spend a day or the weekend, Bishop Hill is the ultimate small-town retreat.
On Land, Water or Sky
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
2 h 56 min (182.4 mi) via I-39 N
Photo Courtesy Visit Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva has all the amenities you’d want in a weekend getaway—whether you’re looking to be pampered or ready to get adventurous. From the high-end hospitality of the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa to the family-friendly fun at Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark, you’ll find plentiful options for lodging and play, and the dining possibilities are endless.
A winding walk along the Geneva Lake Shore Path is a perfect way to take in the lake’s stunning natural beauty—as well as lavish mansions, beautifully trimmed gardens and designer boathouses. The Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers narrated boat tours starting in April, from champagne brunch and jazz dinner cruises to the popular U.S. Mailboat tour, which delivers mail to 75 lakeside homes. If you’re feeling bold, rent your own boat for an unforgettable day on the water, take the family paddle boarding or parasailing, or relax at the Heartland Spa, which relocated to the area in 2015.
Open year-round, the Animal Gardens theme park is home to Echo the singing parrot, notable for appearing on America’s Got Talent, as well as The Dancing Horses Theater—a one-of-a-kind dinner theatre experience showcasing the equestrian pageantry of Arabians, Andalusians, Lippizans and National Show Horses. Go stargazing at Yerkes Observatory—”the birthplace of modern astrophysics” and home of the largest lens-type telescope in the world.
Promising “a sky-high adventure for the whole family,” Lake Geneva Canopy Tours offer zip lines, sky bridges and ropes courses set in 100 acres of forest—plus four spiral staircases built into the trees! For more fun in the sky, the Lake Geneva Balloon Company offers scenic recreational balloon flights. Finally, stop by The Elegant Farmer for its award-winning “Apple Pie Baked in a Paper Bag,” cited by Gourmet, The Wall Street Journal and others as “the best pie in America.”
Land of Twain
2 h 31 min (174.1 mi) via I-72 E
Photo Courtesy Downtown Hannibal
Rarely is one city so closely associated with a single historical figure as Hannibal, Missouri. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, grew up here and used the river town as the setting for many of his stories and novels. It’s where a young Twain apprenticed as a printer and wrote for his brother’s newspaper, and it ignited his dream of becoming a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.
Today, Twain’s presence in Hannibal is as ubiquitous as ever. The Mark Twain Boyhood Museum encompasses eight historic buildings—including Twain’s boyhood home, a National Historic Landmark—and offers interactive exhibits and live performances inspired by his novels. There’s the Mark Twain Cave Complex—written about in at least five of his books, and the home of Cave Hollow Theatre, where storyteller Jim Waddell reweaves the writer’s yarns in “Mark Twain Live.” There are sightseeing cruises aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat, and panoramic riverfront views from the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, just steps away from a bronze statue of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
But it’s not all Twain, all the time. Witness the tale of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” socialite and survivor of the Titanic, at the Molly Brown Museum; tour the Rockcliffe Mansion, with its antique furnishings, Tiffany windows and grand architectural features; enjoy mini-golf, bumper boats and the like at Sawyer’s Creek Fun Park; watch toy trains come alive at the Big River Train Town and Museum; or follow up a visit to the Hannibal History Museum with the Haunted Hannibal Ghost Tours. Come for the day or stay for the weekend—Hannibal is home to at least eight B&Bs, among other accommodations.
History and Pzazz
1 h 34 min (97.6 mi) via I-74
Photo Courtesy Greater Burlington Partnership
Situated on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Southeast Iowa, Burlington offers scenic river views, a sprawling entertainment complex and a rich history—perfect for a day trip or a weekend. Soak up the historic sites of Heritage Hill, including the Victorian elegance of the Phelps House Museum, and go winding down Snake Alley—the “Crookedest Street in the World,” according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, its curved limestone curbing and original 1894 bricks still intact. With its picture-perfect “steeplescape” of century-old churches and municipal buildings, downtown Burlington is home to a restored 1937 Art Deco theater, art center and auditorium.
Just a few miles away, the PZAZZ! Entertainment Complex is home to FunCity and Catfish Bend Casino, two of the region’s top attractions, encompassing an indoor/outdoor waterpark, gaming casino, arcade and bowling alley, as well as go-karts and laser tag. The adults-only Catfish Bend Inn & Spa features 40 luxury suites and deluxe spa packages, while the PZAZZ! Resort Hotel offers accommodations for the whole family.
Elsewhere: hike the extensive trail system at Big Hollow Recreation Area, explore the caves and limestone bluffs of Starr’s Cave Park, sample locally grown grape varieties at Lindon Wines, or experience the scenery at Wildlife Lakes Elk Farm. The Burlington SnowBull, a three-day, indoor bull riding event, takes place in early March, or cheer on our own Peoria Chiefs as they open the 2016 season against the Burlington Bees on April 7th and 8th.
Gateway to Natural Beauty
3 h 55 min (240.5 mi) via I-55 S
Photo Courtesy Carbondale Tourism
The unofficial capital of southern Illinois, Carbondale is not just the home of Southern Illinois University—and subsequently, a bustling nightlife—it’s a unique community in its own right. Besides delectable international cuisine, antique shops and art galleries, it is the region’s cultural center, its stages full of live music, dance and theater. It’s the “front door” of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, with a dozen nearby wineries, and home of The Science Center of Southern Illinois, a hands-on children’s museum, and the Fuller Dome Home, the geodesic dome where architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller once lived.
But even more, Carbondale is an ideal starting point for exploring the natural beauty of southern Illinois. It’s right next door to the Shawnee National Forest—at 273,000 acres, the state’s largest expanse of wooded land, encompassing wilderness trails, waterfalls, archaeological sites and the stunning rock formations at Garden of the Gods. The diverse flora and fauna of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge and the sandstone bluffs of Giant City State Park are a quick drive away, while the surrounding region is full of scenic lakes and abundant recreational opportunities, from hiking and biking to boating and horseback riding.
Rent a cabin in the woods and disconnect from the world, or find lodging at one of the area’s unique B&Bs. And from Carbondale, you can easily make all of southern Illinois your playground—from the historic sites of Cairo to Metropolis, home of Superman, to the Cache River Wetlands near Cypress.
A Restored Playground
French Lick, Indiana
4 h 50 min (283.1 mi) via I-74
Photo Courtesy Visit French Lick West Baden
For more than a century, visitors have sought respite in the neighboring communities of French Lick and West Baden, Indiana. Al Capone stayed often at the West Baden Springs Hotel, while the likes of Howard Hughes and Bing Crosby were regulars at the French Lick Springs Hotel, once dubbed “America’s playground” for the rich and famous. Today, both historic hotels are part of the sprawling, 3,000-acre French Lick Resort complex, which opened in 2007 after extensive redevelopment spearheaded by the late billionaire philanthropist Bill Cook, a native of Canton, Illinois.
In addition to its two beautifully restored hotels, French Lick Resort encompasses a Vegas-style casino, three championship golf courses, luxurious spas and horse stables. Its expansive gaming facility features more than 1,100 slot machines and 37 live-action table games, while The Spas at French Lick promise to redefine tranquility—perfect for a romantic couples massage.
Just a short walk (or drive) away, Big Splash Adventure is a 40,000-square-foot indoor water park with a retractable roof—open year-round and fun for the whole family. The kids will love Shotz Miniature Golf and Lazer Tag, as well as French Lick-West Baden Indoor Karting, home of the “ultimate racing experience.” French Lick Winery offers 28 wines for tasting, while the French Lick Scenic Railway proposes the perfect afternoon excursion: a train ride through the Hoosier National Forest, which extends its own recreational opportunities, including a 266-mile trail system for horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking.
Just 10 miles east of French Lick, Wilstem Ranch offers zip line rides and a rare opportunity to experience African elephants up-close. (A herd of three female elephants will “vacation” at the ranch from March 12th through October 30, 2016.) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Whether you come for adventure or relaxation, French Lick is sure to deliver.
A Luxury Destination
4 h 17 min (276.3 mi) via I-39 N & I-43 N
Photo Courtesy Kohler Co.
When the Kohler Company opened a plant along the Sheboygan River in 1900, company president Walter J. Kohler conceived of an efficient, well-designed community to house its workers. Utilizing the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park, he developed one of the nation’s first planned communities, a “company town” that retains the tenets of its founder even today.
While the Kohler Company is best known for manufacturing bath and kitchen fixtures, furniture and small engines, it also contains a hospitality division, Destination Kohler, which owns and operates numerous establishments in the U.S. and Scotland, including The American Club here in Wisconsin. Originally built in 1918 to house single immigrant workers, it was reborn as a luxury resort in 1981, and now includes four championship golf courses, nine distinctive restaurants, a range of boutique shops and Kohler Waters Spa—one of only 48 spas in the world to claim Forbes’ Five Star distinction.
Also part of the Destination Kohler complex, River Wildlife is a wilderness preserve, dining club and recreational retreat encompassing more than 800 acres and 30 miles of woodland trails. Tour the Waelderhaus, a house in the woods featuring distinctive carvings, woodcuts, iron and pewter work; stop by the acclaimed Blind Horse Restaurant and Winery; or venture five miles east to neighboring Sheboygan, the Bratwurst Capital of the World.
Windy City Tours
2 h 49 min (172.7 mi) via I-55 S
Photo Courtesy Rebecca Healy
You’ve shopped Michigan Avenue, snapped photos in front of “the Bean,” and cheered (or jeered) the Cubs at Wrigley. You’ve hit the beach and Second City, and visited the city’s many museums, zoos and aquariums. But no matter how well you think you know Chicago, there are always new ways to see old things—and sometimes, it’s nice to let someone else lead.
Chicago Greeter, a service of the Chicago Office of Tourism, beckons you to explore the city “with a friendly, knowledgeable local as your guide.” Its two- to four-hour tours showcase the art, architecture and history of more than 25 of the city’s unique neighborhoods—plus, it’s free! Walk Chicago Tours offers a variety of private, customizable walking tours for groups large and small, highlighting sides of the city you might not have seen before.
With dozens of boat tours and skyline cruises—including an award-winning, 90-minute river cruise of downtown architecture—one of the best ways to see Chicago is from the water. Or, experience the city through its food: Tastebud Food Tours offers “three-hour walking food adventures,” and there are pizza tours, “chef-driven” food tours and even a donut tour… donuts included!
The seamier side of Chicago comes alive on The Untouchable Tours—“Chicago’s Original Gangster Tour,” showcasing the 1920s and ‘30s-era hot spots, hideouts and haunts of Capone, Dillinger and company on a two-hour bus tour. Finally, Weird Chicago Tours revels in the city’s mystery and mayhem, showcasing its “most unique, unusual and eerie places.” From the Haunted History Tour to the True Crime & Serial Killer Tour to the adults-only Red Light District Sex Tour (as seen on the Travel Channel), learn why Weird Chicago Tours were voted “Best Tour in Chicago” by Time Out magazine. a&s
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